Whisky and Words Number 82: Pilot House ‘A-O’ American Whisky

The Pilot House A-O with friend (Totoro, sensibly outfitted for a visit in Astoria: with an umbrella).

This is a story of serendipity. The wife and I got a little Air BNB in Astoria, Oregon, as a getaway weekend. We had one good (but chilly) day with sun, and the next was quire rainy, so we just ended up kicking around downtown, enjoying the old architecture, visiting the museums and getting soft-serve frozen custard. On one street we happened across Pilot House Distillery, a small local producer of whisky established in 2013. That’s ‘whisky’ spelled the Scottish way, you’ll note, not like most American ‘whiskeys.’ They also produce gin, rum, vodkas, liqueurs, agave and canned drinks as well as whisky. These folks are not letting any moss grow beneath their feet! Their production and aging is done behind the shop (as you can see on the photo below) right there at 1270 Duane St. in Astoria.

I bought the small taster bottle of their standard, as you can see above, and a special edition we’ll try in the next review. The standard is called “A-O” for Astoria, Oregon of course, and they claim a maritime vibe.

Just a little downtown distillery, with a bit of attitude.

We were under COVID protocols so no tasting at the shop. The signature A-O whisky is described as “traditional American light whisky” with “a smooth vanilla finish and notes of toasted caramel and spice.” The mash bill is 75% corn and 25% malted barley. That’s an unusually high fraction of malt in an American mash bill; as you can see at modernthirst, most American products have a bit of malt but are mostly made of corn and rye. That peaks my interest in the end result.

As for aging, I was curious so emailed the distillery and received a prompt reply from Marketing Manager Christina (on a weekend, no less): “We use new American oak barrels, aged 2 years…comes off still above 160, classified as American light.” The ‘160’ would be proof, so above 80% ABV to you Scotch nerds out there. That’s a higher ABV than your typical pot still will output. Meanwhile, two years’ aging is typical for American whiskies, so the key will be in the cask and locale, a few blocks from the Columbia River’s mouth.

Uncorking (well, unscrewing the little sampler) in my small office and waiting a few moments results in a nice malt and vanilla smell reaching me. Wafting a bit closer, I find a really sweet orange aroma with a subtle backing of roses. Getting in close to my Glencairn brings out toffee, and that orange persists. This is not your normal ‘some sort of bourbon’ dram. Really getting my nose in the glass reveals mineral and salty, nautical notes. In comparison to my choice of ‘a good American whisky’ for comparison, Knob Creek, the A-O is clearly in a different class. The Knob has some subtlety and aroma but the nose is flat in comparison. I do have a bit of my Dead Guy left, which is an unfair comparison, as that’s been sitting almost empty for a couple months. Comparing my notes, I’d say the A-O brings a lot more of a maritime air to their nose, a more sweet and complex aroma but a tad less spice on the nose.

The showdown for today. The A-O is lighter but don’t get swayed by color. It’s aromatic and flavorful. Click for a hi-res view.

On the palate, I get a creamy mouthfeel, touch of orange, toffee, vanilla, some nice spice—(true) cinnamon—on the sides of the tongue. This is what I meant by their barrel selection. They are getting a lot of flavor from those casks given a 2-year maturation. And it is smooth, with not a hint of harshness. This is a well-done whisky with a unique nose, which is fun. The finish has a decent level of tannins which carry some spice along, the spice and bitters making a nice finish to the sweet initial palate. A little toffee lingers at the end. In comparison, the mass-market KC is well structured, has good spice (rye in the mash) and tannins, and a decent finish. What you can tell with the A-O is the Pilot House folks have filled in between the bones of the basic American whisky structure with a lot of nice detail. And the nose on the A-O is in a different league. Up against a more characteristic competitor, the Rogue, I’m going to give the nod to A-O. They both offer a complex nose and interesting spice, but the A-O spice is more Indonesian aromatic than hot pepper, which work very well with the vanilla and toffee, and it has a smoother delivery.

All in all, I am quite pleased at the product and will definitely buy a bottle to introduce to our whisky group next time we meet (after vaccinations, sigh).

A-O American Whisky, 40% ABV

Nose: Malt, vanilla, sweet orange (no rind) and a touch of roses, toffee, and salty, maritime notes.
Palate: Creamy mouthfeel with orange, toffee, vanilla, some nice cinnamon spice on the tongue.
Finish: Not super long but the spice and bitters balancing the sweet initial palate make for a pleasant finish.

Bottom Line: You do get a lot of flavor with this dram. For $40 (delivered in Portland, OR or at any Oregon bottle shop), I’m impressed. Locally, that price is $5 more than the Knob Creek, a premium, but the Pilot House folks showed the K.C. folks their heels. Or for another perspective, it’s the same price as the Bulleit 10-year bourbon (I’ll put that on the shortlist for a comparison). They are aiming at the premium shelf, and they hit the mark.  N.B., I’m a bit of a Scotch snob and have been long looked askance at the distilleries popping up around us here in the Northwest, as the early offerings had pretty tepid reviews. But the Northwest pioneer spirit appears to be alive and well, they have honed the craft and are worth your tasting venture.

Author: H.W. MacNaughton

Technologist and communicator. Into technology, jazz, Formula One, sci-fi and any good writing about real stuff.

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